“First real snow we’ve had this year,” the old man sighed to the woman next to him as he set his coat atop his suitcase and took a seat in the terminal’s lone waiting room. “I’ve only had to sand my driveway twice this winter,” she replied with a slight huff, as though she resented not having the chance to sand it more often. Outside the windows next to the luggage belt, the snow fell in huge soft flakes, coating the runway with a layer of powder inches deep. People lounged around their luggage, waiting to find out whether or not the flight would be cancelled. All night the snow had fallen.
In my haste to reach the airport in timely fashion, I had forgotten to refill the gas tank of the rental car. A small concern it turned out to be, as a voice announced over the intercom, “The flight due to arrive at 7:30 has returned to Anchorage. Please approach the airline information desk to rebook your flight for a later time.” My friends had warned me this might happen in Kodiak, where the predictably inclement weather often caused people to miss connections and flights were routinely delayed. After gathering my returned luggage, I waited in line until the attendant scheduled me for a later departure. Now I had the entire Sunday morning and afternoon to deal with the thirsty rental car and find a way to fill the time in Kodiak as I waited for my 5:20 flight.
After I cleared the mass of snow off the windshield and windows, I drove back into town, filled the gas tank and returned to the small harborside coffee shop. I ordered a hot chocolate. The same old man I had seen earlier in the week sipped coffee from a heavy mug and looked out the window at the boats in the harbor. Snow rested in white lines along bowsprits, beams and ropes, cables and sterns, and all along the wooden docks. Yesterday I had watched him walk from the coffee shop, down the bridge to the dock, and out to his own skiff. He shot a quick look in my direction, then looked away again out the window. I am reminded of the Seamus Heaney poem, “Docker,” which begins:
There, in the corner, staring at his drink,
the cap juts like a gantry’s crossbeam,
Cowling plated forehead and sledgehead jaw.
Speech is clamped in the lips’ vice.
Out of a blue dry bag which I had brought with me as a carry-on, I took out a small tablet and my camera, set it on a high table, took a seat at a barstool and began to write, resolved to use the time to tie together the experiences of the past few days. The unexpected downtime was precious, for work would absorb my attention upon my return. I had driven every stretch of road in Kodiak and paddled a pack raft around the coasts during a week that had started in beautiful sunshine, turned to rain and wind, and ended in a steady 18 hour snowfall. I managed to put together a couple of stories and a handful of notes, upload some photographs and communicate with friends before I decided to return to the airport.
Rather than the tiny airport terminal, I decided to find an alternate place in which to wait out the remaining time. My luggage was already checked in, so I walked across the parking lot to a building which housed a little coffee shop and shared a long lobby with Island Air, a company which provides flights via bush plane to the six disparate communities of Kodiak. I inspected an enormous map of the archipelago which hung on the wall across from the information desk, following the swirly coastlines with my eyes, looking for names I recognized. Someone I had met during my stay had described how he had secured a ticket to remote locations on Kodiak for $150 by riding with the mail through this airline, a choice which proved much more affordable than chartering a flight out to the land’s end in order to kayak along the many long narrow bays which cut into the island.
There wasn’t much going on in the empty office behind the desk. A huge stuffed brown bear took up most of the space beside the door, so I took a seat at the only table in the room and began working again on my writing. Not long afterwards, a bearded man in a grey knit cap walked past me, approaching the airline desk, and as he caught my attention, I instantly felt a twinge of memory attuned to those brown eyes, the set expression of his mouth. Something surfaced.
“Mike? Mike the pilot from Palmer?” I queried. He turned and gave me a steady, searching glance. When he hesitated, I added, “You flew me to Seward with my friend and two German girls, then through the mountains back to Anchorage, and then to Palmer again.” Recognition flickered in his eyes, and he smiled halfway, nodding. “Yeah, I remember. I tanked, had to make a fuel stop.”
A six-seater Cherokee. Two young German women who worked with me, their girlish, excited laughter as German phrases fluttered between them and they photographed each other. And my friend, who had recently finished ground school and had never yet flown in a bush plane, his quiet eyes. I took photographs out the window while he plotted the course on a map, checked directions and numbers, calculated mileage and verified checkpoints. As the small buzzing craft climbed into the sky over Knik glacier, we sank into fuzzy brown seats and clamped bulky headsets over our ears. As we flew east over Prince William Sound, beneath us colossal glaciers poured a white frozen wash into the ocean. Their crevasses, jagged cracks of blue, etched deep. How the sea swirled with new colors, the pattern seen from high above familiar as the soft clouds of colored dye swirling in cups of water at Eastertide.
“Are you flying today?” I asked him. Mike approached the table and sat down across from me. He gestured with his thumb out towards the window. “Maybe. The snowplows have cleared it all away by now. I wasn’t so sure this morning.”
“What’s it like, flying here?” I asked. Last I heard, Mike had been gathering his flying hours and moved to Kodiak to continue working as a pilot on the island. I hadn’t seen him since last fall in Palmer.
“Every day for the last month,” he paused and cast his eyes up, thinking. Then he smiled a little to himself. “Every afternoon, I fly out to Larsen Bay.” He shook his head slowly and leveled his eyes into mine. “And I can’t believe they pay me to do it.” His voice was hushed, like he was used to being alone and not having to explain himself. He stood up abruptly. Someone must have called his name on the intercom. Without a word, he stepped away towards the door which led out to the runway and disappeared.